Q&A with Julie Smith, author of Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels December 12 2014
by Julie M. Smith
Paperback $27.95 (ISBN 978-1-58958-671-0)
Hardcover $60.95 (ISBN 978-1-58958-672-7)
Available December 17th in print and ebook.
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Q: This book has a most unusual format. With the exception of the introductory materials and essays in the appendices, it's just a series of hundreds of questions. Can you talk about why you opted for such an unconventional approach?
A: I wanted to introduce readers to new ideas without necessarily advocating for those ideas. It was more important to me to have the reader do her own thinking about it than for me to let her know what I think. And, frankly, I'm not entirely sure of the best answers to a lot of these questions! I also have a really strong belief in the idea that the moment when you are genuinely pondering the potential answer to a question is the moment when you are making it easiest for personal inspiration to come, and so I wanted to facilitate that process.
Q: Mormon readers are often cautious or downright suspicious of academic biblical studies. Should we be?
A: A lot of that suspicion comes from statements from earlier leaders, especially Elder Bruce R. McConkie, who expressed skepticism about biblical studies. I actually agree with Elder McConkie to some extent: when he spoke, much of what was done in the academy was neither ultimately productive (in an academic sense) nor devotionally useful. However, that is most emphatically not the case today! Since about 1980, a variety of literary approaches to the New Testament have been ascendant in the academy and have shown to be very useful devotionally. So modern academic biblical studies is well worth engaging. Of course, everyone should still maintain a healthy suspicion--there is enough disagreement within the field that no one outside of it should feel obligated to believe everything that he reads. But that's a suspicion that should prompt thoughtful engagement, not avoidance.
Q: This is a second edition, which Kofford Books is including in its Contemporary Studies in Scripture Series. What revisions have you made, and why republish it?
A: The revisions include minor changes to the body of the text---including the addition of a number of new questions---and the inclusion of three new essays. Kofford Books approached me about revising and republishing it for inclusion in their new Contemporary Studies in Scripture series and encouraged me to include some of what I've worked on and published since doing the first edition. The editors told me they were especially interested in my book, despite its having been previously published, because they felt like it so directly and immediately facilitated the kind of close, careful reading of scriptural texts the series is meant to encourage.
Q: What audience did you have in mind in writing and revising the book? Is it the kind of book that a rank-and-file Sundayschool instructor could benefit from?
A: The audience includes people studying the NT on their own or teaching it to adults (or older youth). I think a rank-and-file teacher would definitely benefit because the questions are designed to provide useful background information and then prompt discussion. For example, for Matthew 5:13 ("ye are the salt of the earth"), I offer many different options for the symbolism of salt common to Jesus' time (incidentally, our modern idiom "salt of the earth" is not one of them!) and then ask which ones make sense in this context.
Q: Does a "Mormon reading" of the New Testament exist? What are the shortcomings of how we read---and how we teach---the New Testament?
A: Let me tell you a story: when my youngest son was about two, he'd normally come and get me as soon as he woke up ("Open your eyes! Talk to me!"), but one day, he didn't. I awoke well after him and found him in the kitchen; he hadn't noticed I was there so I watched him for a few minutes. He'd somehow managed to open a new box of raisin bran. He would dump a mound of it on the table, pick out the raisins and eat them, and then use his little arm to brush all of the flakes onto the floor. And then he'd do it again. I think that's sometimes how we read the scriptures: picking out the familiar, easy bits and making a mess of the rest! As a result, our lessons can often have a rote and wooden feel to them. I can't tell you how much this saddens me--because there are immense treasures of fascinating ideas in the scriptures and we sometimes don't recognize it!
Q: What new projects are you currently at work on that we can look forward to?
A: I'm working on the volume on the Gospel of Mark for the BYU New Testament Commentary.